A few nights ago, I decided to enjoy a little casual viewing of a horror classic. Christine, the story of the monster car, is a horror staple that, with a well-written script and believable characters, delivers ample entertainment without ever really terrifying the viewer—at least, if the viewer is me. Because Christine doesn’t situate itself in the realm of the typical horror movie, rife with ghouls and vampires and traditional monsters of all sorts. Christine – if you don’t know this, and you probably do – is about a vicious, killer car with unusual superpowers. I chose the film, as I’ve insinuated, because I think it’s a fun watch for a low-key night – nothing as scary, say, as watching Sinister. And unsurprisingly, as I watched the film, a few thoughts came to mind that made me ponder.
First, let’s explore the monumental suspension of disbelief necessary to make a film like this work – and, though it’s not the scariest horror film, to an extent it does work. But think about it: we have ample space in our cultural lore for ghosts, demons, witches, and vampires. When it comes to many of these entities, there are individuals who will swear they’ve had an encounter, that these things exist. I think even a skeptic sitting around, watching, for example, The Conjuring, which was based off the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, might pause for a minute and allow for the possibility that some of the instances in the film are based at least loosely on actual events. The bottom line is, such creatures form a sort of foundation; we’ve been introduced to them, we can entertain the possibility that they might be real (even if we don’t wholeheartedly believe so), and we recognize them when we see them in films. And let’s face it, because they tend to be human-monster amalgams with hideous facades, they can be pretty scary. But let’s pause, now, and take a look at Christine.
There’s very little, if any space in our culture’s lore for the concept of a demonic, a possessed, an insidious car. It’s just not something anyone ever really thought of before Stephen King. And come on, look at Christine. How scary can she be with that glossy red exterior, that class and aesthetic appeal? Like other monsters she is a hybrid – a human-machine, a sentient car with the ability to operate on her own volition, despite the absence of opposable thumbs or, well, any appendages save wheels. And with her ability to, quite alone, stalk other individuals in the night, she definitely “polices the borders of the possible,” as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen states in his book Monster Theory when describing monsters. But she was constructed on an assembly line, like every other car on the line before and after her. She is but a sturdy compilation of various metals, and one has to wonder, as one watches the movies, why this particular car is evil—indeed, why this particular car has an animus or a sentience at all. It’s a question that’s never really answered in the film.
So what of the film? Well, Dennis and Arnie are two typical teenagers living almost stereotypically opposite experiences, although in a stereotypical way that film executes effectively. Though Dennis and Arnie are best friends, Dennis is the good-looking, cool Jock with the letter jacket, the attention of all the girls, and the seemingly easy life. Arnie is the awkward, very quintessential nerd with big, googly glasses, overbearing parents, and bullies to fight—or evade. What I will say for Arnie is that I think, even before he turns into a “cool guy” – which he does when he buys Christine – he has a sort of indescribable charm that makes the viewer drawn to him despite his quote-unquote dorky status. And when he falls in love with the beaten-up car, Christine, one day, when he buys her without consulting his parents and endeavors to fix her up, he takes the first step toward becoming a hipper, stylish, more confident, but less caring, more diabolical version of himself – a self that we see unfold as the movie progresses. Spoiler alert (you’ve had over thirty years to see this one), the car consumes almost everything in its path, including its beloved owner, Arnie, who it covets jealously until it kills. Thus, while Arnie lovingly fixes up the initially battered and beaten Christine, his beloved – his car – is ultimately the violent impetus of his own demise.
Every once in awhile on this site, I recommend horror movies to individuals who are new to horror. This is definitely one I would recommend to said individuals. Like I argued before, we have no discreet category in which to situate that entity “killer car” – except the broad category, “monster” – and perhaps for that reason, Christine, though not entirely likable, also isn’t entirely scary. Even when she’s cruising around in the film without being manned by Arnie at the helm, when she’s driving herself, encased in flames, bent on killing the person who’s running from her, she’s not incredibly scary. This isn’t a movie that’s ever made me jump or cover my eyes. The story works – it’s engaging, and we believe it just enough to keep paying attention – but it’s not incredibly unsettling. Indeed, maybe I never did believe it enough to pay attention, in some ways; I started reading Christine in middle school or high school, and I must not have been terribly engaged, because unlike the status of King’s other works that I’ve read, I never finished this particular book.
And while I don’t have any major qualms with the movie, as an adult female, elements of the film do strike me as a bit misogynistic. The high school boys, for example, are always saying pejorative things about the women in the high school. “You don’t know where that’s been,” they say of one girl. And of another, “she’s a walking sperm bank,” and of another, “She looks smart, but she has the body of a slut.” I made the point, to Michael, that perhaps the filmmakers were just trying to replicate the banter of teenage boys, to which Michael replied that if any of his teenage boy students said those things aloud in school, they would still be being misogynistic, despite being teenage boys. I thought this was a good point. The rhetoric in parts of the film is demeaning toward women, and it taints the characters. Indeed, they don’t really seem like teenage boys; they seem more like cocky college students or guys in their early 20’s, and they look like it, too. They’re certainly large for high school boys, perhaps with the exception of Arnie, who’s made to seem smaller than all the big tough guys that surround him but who is really probably a normal size for a high school student.
And if the high school guys are misogynist, then I think there’s also a tinge of misogyny in calling the car “Christine.” I mean, that might be a strong statement; if it has to have a name, perhaps King felt it had to have a binary-based gender, but given the misogynistic background of the rest of the film, I think the fact that the car has a girl’s name might top off that misogyny a little bit. Succinctly stated, Christine is, well, a bit of a bitch. Giving her a girl’s name personifies her, and her frequently mentioned vindictiveness and jealously become inflated, negative caricatures of bad qualities that are typically (albeit inaccurately and unfairly) aligned with women. But then, imagine if the evil car hadn’t been a girl. Could a killer car named Christopher be as scary? I don’t know, but I think it’s convenient, to say the least, that the notoriously jealous, vindictive Christine is a woman.
I’m not lambasting the movie for that reality; it’s a small flaw in an otherwise solid, though not incredibly scary film. Along other lines, I’m not sure how much the book tells us, but I think the film gives us a fairly shallow look at what’s going on with a lot of the supernatural elements of the film. By the end of the film, in other words, many questions remain to be answered, and the film could stand to be more interesting if it attempted to answer some of these questions (which, from what I recall, I think the book does, based on the parts I read). First, as I mentioned, the film never tells us why this particular car is evil. When we encounter haunted houses in films, they’re always, for example, built on an “ancient Indian burial ground”. But Christine starts to kill as soon as all her parts are together, when she’s finally a complete car. At that moment, when she’s finished, she starts to become the murderous monster, and we never know why, never know what made her that way.
Moreover, we never know whether Arnie falls in love with her because she’s a little awkward like him (before he fixes her up), which is the excuse he gives for being attracted to the car, or because it has supernatural powers. Does it have the ability to attract individuals, to literally draw them to it? It would seem so, because Arnie changes greatly once he fixes up Christine, and he appears, almost, a man possessed. But we never know. One is tempted to wonder why Christine does choose Arnie.
Finally, at what point, if ever, does Arnie lose his own volition? Arnie’s girlfriend says to Dennis, in one part of the film, “I don’t think that’s Arnie anymore.” To the extent that we can track his change – and we don’t get much time with him before he buys Christine – he seems to become more confident and assertive, but he also becomes an asshole the longer he owns Christine. Has owning Christine changed his personality? Has she altered him little-by-little, or is he possessed completely? Is he an entirely different person than he was before he bought Christine? And why does she kill him at the conclusion of the movie? There is an overtly spoken love affair between Arnie and his car. Indeed, the car tries choking Arnie’s girlfriend. So why does the car ultimately decide to kill her beloved?
Despite some unanswered questions, the film manages to maintain the viewer’s interest all the way through its execution. Its predominant motif seems to be the seductive, shiny exterior of evil juxtaposed with its darker realities. Christine is initially a heap of junk sitting in an old man’s yard, but when Arnie fixes her up, it’s critical to note that she is a beautiful machine – sleek and tempting and incredibly hip. Like Milton’s charismatic devil then in Paradise Lost, who I feel like I always refer to on this blog, evil is alluring in Christine. And Arnie, who has his own sort of nerdy charm in the movie’s beginning, becomes incredibly attractive and intriguing when he buys Christine. He transforms into someone who gradually loses his moral compass, but he starts dating the most beautiful girl in school (you know, the smart-looking one with the “body of a slut”), and as a viewer, I found myself a little captivated and enamored by him. Sure enough, evil is enticing—but, for Arnie, and perhaps for Christine, things don’t turn out so well in the end.
Ultimately, I’m glad I decided to turn on this movie during my spontaneous movie night. It was fun to watch with low-nightmare potential, and I wasn’t in the mood for abject terror that particular night. Like I said, it’s a must-see for anyone who’s new to horror. With an interesting screenplay, decent acting, and an unfortunate tinge of misogyny, Christine will serve as good company for the hour and a half that you watch the film.